The psychology of eating: You are what you eat

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The psychology of eating: You are what you eat

Feeling irritable? Depressed? Murderous? Could it be what you had for dinner? Dubai-based nutritionists weigh in on why what you eat is very much responsible for how you feel.


Karen Ann Monsy

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Published: Thu 4 Feb 2016, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 12 Feb 2016, 9:36 AM

We've all heard the phrase you are what you eat. But can foods actually alter our moods? For example, is there any grain of truth to proponents of ancient Chinese medicine or Ayurveda when they advise against consuming onions, spicy peppers, coffee and garlic as they might make one more "inclined to anger"? Or should one believe The Oprah Show, on which the popular talk show hostess once pegged sardines as stress busters?
"Food can definitely alter your mood," wrote Dr Shoshana Bennett, clinical psychologist, mental health expert, and radio host in a 2014 article called '5 Foods for Better Moods'.
"Sometimes the effect is immediate, other times there's a delay of an hour or so. Over time, the wrong foods can create a continuous foul mood or negative state of mind. But many people still aren't making the connection between their emotional wellbeing and what they ate for dinner - or the last 200 dinners."
Archana Arora, senior dietician at the Health Factory in Dubai, is reluctant to call out specific foods as culprits, but agrees there are those that have been proven to influence how we feel. "Dried apricots have been scientifically proven to be mood boosters," she says. "Milk contains tryptophan, an amino acid that releases the 'happy hormone' seratonin - that's why people tend to have it just before they sleep. But coffee and chocolate are high in caffeine and can make one hyper."
A lot of the relation between foods and moods has to do with neurotransmitter activity in the brain, explains Stephanie Karl, nutritionist at Dubai's JTS Medical Centre. "Serotonin is the one that has the most influence on our emotional state. It's a little like petrol in the tank, where too little will not get you started, and too much will flood the engine and make you stall. Either case will make you irritable, anxious, depressed and hungry for sweet foods and carbohydrates."
As someone who grew up in a "medical household" - his father is a professor of medicine, specialising in food-related illness, and his mum a nurse and nutritionist - Magnus Mumby, executive chef at Bystro Dubai, says he was aware of the relationship between food and health very early on, and it was a natural progression of that knowledge when he became a professional chef as a teen, and gained a degree in diet and nutrition from Oxford College later on in 2014.
We are all psychologically susceptible to food, taste and smell - all of which can be triggers to behaviour, he says. "However, while a person's food intoler-ances do lead to all sorts of behavioural and emotional problems, they are strictly individual. There is no such thing as reactions to specific foods that are universal. Red peppers might make one person alert and aware, and yet give another a headache. You just have to figure out what's pertinent to you: what foods are good and bad for you."
For most, these reactions restrict themselves to mood swings - but truth is stranger than fiction and Magnus recalls how one of his father's patients was in jail for trying to kill his father - because potatoes were a trigger food for him and made him prone to extreme violence. Magnus' father, Dr Keith Scott-Mumby, went on to make medico-legal history in 1986, when a UK Crown Court accepted his evidence that food allergy was capable of making a youth murderously violent; the story was covered for 20 minutes on Britain's Channel 4 News and the youth given a conditional release - the condition being that he stick to Prof Scott-Mumby's diet.
While such cases are exceptions, the more common scenario is the "Mommy, Mommy, can I, can I?" drama that plays out in households everywhere by kids yearning sugary treats, says the chef. "Sugar has an addictive effect similar to drugs. We crave the 'high' that comes with it. As it wears off, we start to come down and feel tired, irritable and grouchy - and you can see this played out best in children. They get the candy, followed by the rush and hyperactivity, the desire for more sugar to keep the high going, the inevitable downer, leading to tears and tantrums - and then the crash and eventual exhaustion. We may call it comfort eating but, in truth, this roller coaster of highs and lows creates untold damage and stress, emotionally and physically."
So how does one determine what works and what doesn't? Stephanie, who's been in the industry for the last 10 years, notes that while we acknowledge the role of nutrition, we rarely know how to target consuming the nutrients within foods to influence a specific outcome. "Make an informed decision about the foods that suit you best by listening to your body and noting both positive and adverse reactions. A normally healthy food can, in fact, be toxic to a sensitive individual and trialling an elimination diet might be the best starting point."
This is a diet where you eliminate ?all inflammatory foods for three weeks, she explains. "That's wheat, sugar, artificial sweeteners, corn, soy, peanuts, dairy and eggs. It sounds restrictive ?but there are plenty of good options where seed grains, potatoes and rice become the starch choices, and all ?fruit, vegetables, meat and fish are the norm and considered safe. If you feel great, start adding in a group at a time every week."
There's no point trying to keep track of the scores of studies being released regularly these days, the ones that glorify a food one day, then condemn it as cancer-causing the next. Follow a balanced, holistic diet, says Archana. "If you follow myths, you'll end up with more deficiencies than benefits." 

 Eating Well
Daily diets must be tailored to individual needs. However, for a simplistic overview of a healthy eating plan:
>Have a protein-rich breakfast for brain function. The brain burns up a whopping 20-30 per cent of calories (think about that for a moment. and burn a few more!).
>Cut out carbs. Unless you're very active, you really have no need for them. You can get all the carbs you need from fruits, vegetables, legumes and pulses.
>Snack little and often. This grazing way of eating mimics the Cro-Magnon man's lifestyle as a hunter-gatherer: picking fruit and nuts as they wandered, with meat and fish eaten after hunts.
>Make meals all about vegetables - the more, the better. A good rule of thumb is, when you look at your plate, 2/3 of it should be green, leafy and root vegetables, with ¼ protein and very little carbohydrate, if any.
>A little chocolate can be enjoyed everyday, but only pure dark chocolate - not sweetened or milk chocolate. Try to make other sweet treats based on nuts or fruit (granolas, fruit mousses or purées) rather than stocking sugar-based or bread-based items (doughnuts, croissants, pastries etc).
>Try to keep healthy snacks on hand and in the fridge. Some examples are pastry-less quiches, sliced meats, cooked 100% meat sausages, cheese, nuts, fruits etc. Healthy soups (a good way to eat legumes like beans and lentils) and salad items - like devilled eggs, dressed lentils, carrot and root vegetable salad with dried fruit - are all easy foods to grab and go from the fridge. Trail mix, nuts and seeds are great to keep in your car or purse for quick snacks.
>Avoid long periods of not eating, as this will cause the body to raise blood sugars leading to hypoglycaemia, stress and premature ageing.
> Long-term, sustainable, healthy eating is the best way to lose and maintain healthy body weight. Diets don't work because they are exactly that, a 'diet' i.e. not a normal eating pattern.
>Listen to your body, adapt your habits of eating to match what works for you and enjoy it! Little treats, now and then, are fine - as long as they are every now and then. Find foods and dishes that you love that are good for you; there is a huge amount of tasty, healthful, easy-to-cook food out there.
>Avoid habitual eating patterns and unrealistic targets. Losing nine kg in a week is not desirable, normal or healthy!
Courtesy: Magnus Mumby 
A serotonin deficit feels like a terrible hangover, and one of the primary factors affecting its production is the food we eat. "Vitamin B6 is necessary for serotonin production and a deficiency will cause fatigue, irritability, depression and an increased sense of pain and PMS." The same goes for the amino acid tryptophan, which is important for the formation of serotonin.
Foods high in B6:
. Bananas
. Chicken
. Avocados
. Potatoes
. Green peas
. Wheat germ
. Walnuts
Foods high in tryptophan:
. Cottage/Parmesan/Swiss cheese
. Ice cream
. Milk
. Fish and shellfish
. Meat and poultry
. Nuts and seeds
- Stephanie Karl

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